Friday, October 12, 2007

Reflections on ACTEM's MainED '07

I went to ACTEM's annual computer technology conference for educators yesterday and I'm always amazed at how many "experts" there are among educators. It seems that every year there are more and more presentations put on by teachers and in some cases their students as well. It seems like there were fewer "sales pitch" kinds of sessions so kudos to the organizers.
I didn't come away from the MainEducation conference with any specific set of skills that I didn't know how to do before, but I did come out, as always, refocused and feeling supported. In the rural school in which I teach I may be one of a handful of teachers who has even heard the term "Web 2.0" for example, and I often feel the need to connect with others who are starting to truly understand why education needs to change and who are legitimately interested in the question of how it needs to change.

I do, however get frustrated when I think of the obstacles in place, for me and my district, that make this kind of change harder. I don't share these obstacles to put a damper on the conversation or to shirk my responsibility, I do so to hopefully enlist help from anyone would care to give it. I am going to do my best, within my own district to try to positively cultivate the changes I think need to happen in order to better serve our students.

So here's a list of obstacles... (bear with me through the negative parts).

  1. Our filter, and more importantly the philosophy behind the way it is being used. Students and staff are routinely blocked from valuable sites and tools that would greatly benefit learning. I have been blocked from wikis, podcasts, blogs, video and image sites and many more in the past. This is not to say that we need every site unblocked (that would be impractical and inappropriate). But it is, nonetheless, an obstacle for teachers to overcome.
  2. The idea that all student and staff creation, publication and information remain on our own server and in our control. A few years ago, I was blocked from my own website, which, at the time was only an easy way to update class links and information because, as I was told by my then principal, "The school has a website and server and work for education has to be housed there, not on your personal space." When I asked if I could only bring in newspaper articles, videos and books that were approved specifically by the district I was told that I was just trying to be negative.
  3. Restriction of technologies to limit activities not related to work. More and more often I here the argument that staff in particular would simply squander their time on their laptops on E-bay, ESPN, and other sites for personal use. I don't think anyone would agree that school is an appropriate place to run your side business or update your MySpace page, but is tightening the screws on everyone the answer? If a teacher was playing solitaire outside of the technology realm and failing to meet the needs of their students, wouldn't that be just as concerning? Why don't administrators deal with these people individually and not use technology restrictions as a means to increase productivity.
  4. Isolation or lack of support of teachers who want to take risks, be creative and try new things. Most teachers will tell you that trying something new in your classroom is a risk you take alone. Teachers have to learn to band together, to build communities to support each other, and to build an effective educational argument for the lifting of these restrictions. Administrators need to embrace these staff members and work closely with them to support their work and help them think of the possible pros and cons of what they are doing. Teachers need to "sell" their underlying instructional beliefs of a project to the school, not just complain that a particular piece of technology has been restricted.
I found this particular piece of advice offered by David Warlick in his response to the K12-Online Conference chat about his keynote presentation:

"at the same time that we need to be taking down traditional boundaries and creating more boundaries for new traction, setting walls for the safety of our children remains paramount. ..and this is a much bigger problem than that. It's not just a technical problem that can be solved technically. But that said, the problem that I see is in erecting those walls so far from the classroom. I think that we should respect the classroom teacher as the instructional leader of their domain, and give teachers the ability to open those walls up in times that are appropriate. If a teacher selects a resource, that they have evaluated, and then find that the web page is blocked, they should be able to open it up for their class appropriately, not appeal through channels to someone who has no vocational interest in instruction.

Dave's point here is well made. We can't just flick a switch and fix it. It's far too complex for that. I hope in following posts to be able to start proactively surmounting these obstacles in this forum and maybe even chronicling my efforts in real life.

I hope to get some much needed advice and support, so PLEASE comment and offer suggestions.

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